Monday, September 26, 2016

the weekend's viewing

I keep telling myself I should take out a subscription to TCM's magazine so I have a schedule close at hand of what is showing. (I know: I can look it up online, but I often don't think to, and as a result, wind up coming in to a movie I want to watch 30 or more minutes into it).

This weekend, though, I happened to come across "A Face in the Crowd" as it was starting. I had heard a lot about this movie but had never seen it.

I can't quite say I *enjoyed* it in the way I enjoyed "Zootopia" or "Guardians of the Galaxy," but it was certainly an interesting movie. And spooky, given some of the political developments we've seen in recent years.

Most of you probably know the story: a ne'er-do-well named Larry Rhodes (played by Andy Griffith) is snatched from jail by Marcie Jeffries and put on the radio. He seems to reflect something in the Zeitgiest and becomes wildly popular....and is hired away from small-town Arkansas by a Nashville station. There, he is given a staff of writers and others (including a young Walter Matthau - whom I will admit I found kind of adorable - as "Vanderbilt, '44" as the uneducated Rhodes dubs him - needling the "college boy." (and yes, it has always been thus))

A mattress-manufacturer becomes his sponsor, wants him to do commercials. Rhodes makes fun of the sponsor, in a very calculated move to again pit the "little man" against the "big man" (whether that "big man" is educated or a businessman). The mattress firm wants to fire Rhodes but the fans nearly *riot* - burning a mattress in front of the company - and the manufacturer winds up putting up with the guy's shenanigans. (It's really kind of creepy how this movie seems to show some of the things we see happening in the culture today)

At the same time, Marcia Jeffries - that "good girl" that Rhodes mocked at some point for being 'cold and respectable' - realizes she's fallen in love with him, and they begin an affair, even though he is SO not good for her (and even though "Vanderbilt, '44," apparently has a little thing for her. And I admit, were I in her shoes? I would have gone for "Vanderbilt" in a heartbeat and left "Lonesome Rhodes" by the side of the, well, road. But I never did understand the bad-boy attraction some women felt; I always like the stable, perhaps slightly boring, guys, the ones who wore horn-rimmed glasses and were genuinely nice to their mothers and were polite to their underlings....)

(And I admit, I probably noticed the "cold and respectable" comment more than some women, as I could easily be described thus. Though perhaps "respectable" is as much from "lack of opportunity" as it is from any kind of early programming....)

It's actually made more explicit than I would imagine a 50s era film would do that she has stayed the night with Rhodes.

Anyway, Rhodes moves further up the ladder, being recruited by New York television and a "virility" pill manufacturer. And he gradually begins to change (power corrupts) - he starts to become the very things he mocked and despised as a down-and-outer. And then, a senator with presidential aspirations recruits Rhodes to help him learn how to "appeal to the common man." (In other words: to be not-himself). And Rhodes is all too happy to go along: more power, more prestige, more money.

Rhodes' wife - you know there had to be one somewhere - shows up and kind of punctures Marcia's happy dream of marrying him. The wife offers to divorce Rhodes, but only for $3000 per month (in 1957 dollars. I might note here that my after-tax, after-TIAA-contibution take-home pay is just about $3000 a month - so that's a LOT of money for "not doing anything," and especially some 60 years ago)

Somehow, though, Rhodes works it out...and then winds up marrying a barely-past-jailbait baton twirler who comes on to him at a contest he's judging. Which just shows you what a snake he is.

He continues to grow in power and fame and it continues to bring out his bad qualities (which were probably always there, just masked, in the down-and-outer personality). His eyes take on a mad glitter (and it is truly spooky, for someone who knew Andy Griffith mainly from re-runs of his tv show, as the kindly sheriff and widower father). He doesn't care who he steps on in his way up. He's abusive to his staff, he uses people. All he can see is that Fuller (the senator) has promised him a cabinet post - "Secretary for National Morale" (which is a super creepy idea in and of itself).

At the same time, his young wife cheats on him with his slick agent (former mattress company worker). Everything kind of starts falling apart. Of course, Rhodes has come to hold all the "little people" he came from in deep contempt; he sees himself now as better than they are because....I suppose because he's famous and they aren't? (Again, shades of stuff going on in our culture right now).

Eventually, he needs to be stopped. Mel Miller (the "Vanderbilt, '44" I referred to earlier) writes an expose on him and is planning to publish it. And finally, Marcia decides she has to do something - so, as his tv show is closing one day, she re-opens the mike that is supposed to be closed as the credits are rolling....and reveals to Rhodes' audience that the "playful banter" he appears to be engaging in (when you can't hear the words) is actually pretty horrible insults towards the ordinary folks who are essentially paying his salary by buying the products advertised on his show.....of course, Rhodes doesn't realize what she's done (she sits in the sound room, weeping, because she's broken her heart over this cad but also because she had to be the one to ruin his career) and he cheerfully heads out for a fancy dinner he had planned for Senator Fuller and others in his penthouse.

The first sign something's wrong is the joke about "going way down" that the elevator operator makes, but Rhodes is too full of himself to twig to anything then.

He arrives at his apartment to find that everyone has canceled: in a few short moments, he has become absolutely toxic to anyone with aspirations of getting the vote of "the little man." So he is standing in his empty (huge) dining room, surrounded by a cadre of African-American waiters (and it struck me how those characters, who were put in a servile role, and would doubtless have been ridiculed and abused by Rhodes, stand there with quiet dignity, even when he goes nuts and demands that they show him love).

And Rhodes does snap. Oh, he's got something wrong, something missing there, in his psychological make-up all along, but it comes to a head now. He screams, he raves, he gets right up in the face of the oldest of the waiters and demands he show him love....some days later, when Miller and Jeffries finally go to see him, he is still raving (and drinking, apparently) and demanding people love him....

In the end, they leave him. We don't know what becomes of him, but presumably Jeffries and Miller will go on to better lives with him out of it.

The movie is creepy, I've said that before. I wonder if it's slightly more creepy to people seeing it now - people who mostly know Griffith as "Sheriff Taylor" and a raft of other benign roles (I had previously seen "No Time for Sergeants," which is a movie I liked a lot, where he plays essentially a good-hearted hick, but a hick who saves the day). But it's also creepy in its portrayal of narcissism and the corrupting influence of power and seeing someone who is probably a sociopath act. (I think I read somewhere that Griffith asked for a few old chairs to wreck up before the big scenes so he could work up a head of anger)

As I said - there are some things in it reminiscent of what goes on in politics today (and perhaps always has, seeing as the movie was made in 1957) but also pop culture (the whole idea of asking a musician/actor/sports star for his or her opinion on some matter outside of their field of expertise, and treating that opinion as though it's deeply-informed and more meaningful than someone else's, because it was given by a Famous Person).

But I also wonder if some of Rhodes' narcissism isn't in all of us in the Internet age - the "You're going to love me!" scream near the very end. We all want attention. Some get more attention than others. And I admit, there are times I've seen people getting attention that seemed undeserved to me, especially at times when I felt I was laboring in obscurity, and I admit I felt some....not very nice things....about it. Oh, I suppose the fact that I realize they were "not nice" things and that I never felt motivated to act on them mean I'm not too far gone, and the fact that I have a pretty solid grounding in my faith and when I am at my best I CAN "labor in obscurity" and take some kind of pleasure in knowing that what I am doing is doing some good, somewhere, in the world, even if no one recognizes it.....but I also acknowledge that there IS a little bit of the Crazy Fluttershy in me (to bring in another character who uttered that infamous line) who wants to stamp her foot and declare, "YOU'RE GOING TO LOVE ME!" (even as I know that love that's demanded is no love at all....)

But all in all: the movie is complex and frankly at times kind of scary and I think, very well done.

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